Always keen to advocate promising local filmmakers, this year’s Flatpack Festival hosted the world premiere of Numbskull, the debut feature from Birmingham based writer-director John Humphreys, best known for his UB40 and Bentley Rhythm Ace music videos.
His film is a suspenseful, black and white psychological horror in the vein of M.R. James’ ghost stories and their atmospheric BBC adaptations. It opens on a desolate Ministry of Defense testing ground and a man digging into the earth. Long ago he buried something and now he’s looking for it.
With co-writers Squire and Murphy, Humphreys makes the most of a little known tale about William Shakespeare’s corpse, which sits somewhere between folklore and fact. Shakespeare’s tombstone reads;
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebeare
To dig the dust enclosed heare;
Blest be the man that spares thes stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
This little curse has long summoned dark fears about his remains, because unlike other playwrights, poets and artists, Shakespeare’s grave has never been officially opened. This is made more mysterious by the story of the Beoley grave robbers who supposedly stole Shakespeare’s skull before abandoning it in a Worcestershire church in 1794. Without opening the grave it’s impossible to verify whether Britain’s greatest playwright is sans-head or not.
It’s here where Numbskull begins, the film’s two characters, Nev (David Squire) and Spud, (Paul Murphy) acquiring the cursed skull from its second resting place. Years later, after his wife has died violently, Nev wants to return the skull but Spud has other plans.
Numbskull is essentially focussed on a single journey, powered by Nev’s determination to return Shakespeare to his original resting place and punctuated by Spud’s frequent acts of betrayal. This simple plot enables Humphreys to focus on mood, and he modernises the classic ghost story with a fusion of urban and rural that echoes our relationship with the myths. Spud’s insistence on making the journey by foot takes us through city, canals and woodland. These dense backgrounds – particularly grass, trees and foliage – ensure our eyes play tricks on us, conjuring classic fears; the sense of being followed, watched and manipulated. Numbskull’s scares are all in the mind, the product of atmosphere, but when we look into the skull’s black eye sockets Humphreys transports us to the heart of the curse.
Numbskull’s air of prolonged fright is a sum of many parts. The minimal piano score is complemented with peculiar sounds that awaken mystery and dread. It comes from Birmingham based percussionist Mike Curley (Humphreys describes him as a “great inventive musician”) who plays the cymbals with a bow and the piano with a hammer. Then there’s the black and white cinematography – a happy accident emerging from a broken camera and failed colour matching – which strips back the city’s noise
In its meticulous visuals, Numbskull plays out as a love letter to Birmingham. The intricate woven metal work of the library is glimpsed through high-rise windows, while the city’s network of canals is captured as an underground curiosity concealed beneath bridges and tower blocks. To outsiders Numbskull’s city might seem anonymous but for locals, the film divulges hidden secrets, and Humphreys’ shot composition frequently skews the familiar.Growing out of improvisation (shooting, storyboarding and re-scripting was done on a daily basis, in chronological order) the characters of Nev and Spud are two ‘every men’ cultivating their own trickle of dry comedy amidst the suspense. When Spud’s says Nev’s hair makes him look depressed – omitting any mention of the tragedies that have befallen him – we laugh at his tactlessness. At other times, Numbskull ignites a dark, freakish, The League Of Gentleman style humour, which, at its most eccentric, digs even further into the myths surrounding Shakespeare. The playwright’s sonnets vaguely suggest a famous identity for the film’s talking beetle that offers an obscure voice of conscience for Nev.
In light of this dexterity, it’s natural to question why there isn’t more to Numbskull’s somewhat flat, linear plot. But it’s a catch-22. This stripped-back story gives rise to Numbskull’s curiosity, prolonged suspense and paranoid atmosphere. Eschewing complicated events for creative visuals, a mysterious back-story and atmospheric storytelling, Numbskull feels closer to celebrated classics like The Haunting (1963) or A Warning To The Curious (1972) than anything recent cinema has had to offer.